The digital media dilemma

Above: Vivian Schiller, a veteran of CNN, Discovery Channel, the New York Times, NPR, NBC and Twitter speaking on the rise of digital media at a business luncheon for media hosted by the Unit Trust last week. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

BitDepth#1067 for November 15, 2016

“You have a vibrant media landscape here in Trinidad,” Vivian Schiller said.

“Wonderful.”

Vivian Schiller is that rarest of sightings, a professional from the old way of media who’s been along for the turbulent ride that’s characterised the last ten years of journalism transformation.

“But I also see some of the hallmarks of trouble ahead,” she added, “this is not just Trinidad. It’s happening all over the world.”

Schiller conspicuously downplayed her observations of the local response by traditional media houses to the rise of digital media, choosing instead to offer examples and guidance inspired by what she’s seen and heard in T&T.

Mobile phone use has had the greatest impact on news in her experience.

The newspaper website is the newspaper on a screen, but mobile media has made another fundamental shift in consumption patterns, playing a huge role in the positioning of social media as a source of news. The social media newsfeed is having a commanding impact on the way that news is consumed.

The reader no longer sees the story in the context that it was placed in on the website. The news source may have gained readers, but no longer controls the direct experience that the reader has with their online presence.

This can work well when a dominating local social media presence like Facebook circulates news posts, increasing reach, but five months ago the company announced more changes to its feed algorithm which are likely to affect both marketers and media houses seeking increased reach for their reporting.

According to Facebook…

Facebook was built on the idea of connecting people with their friends and family. That is still the driving principle of News Feed today. Our top priority is keeping you connected to the people, places and things you want to be connected to—starting with the people you are friends with on Facebook.”

“That’s why if it’s from your friends, it’s in your feed, period—you just have to scroll down. To help make sure you don’t miss the friends and family posts you are likely to care about, we put those posts toward the top of your News Feed. We learn from you and adapt over time.

This is Facebook’s gentle way of reminding people riding on the coattails of its reach that they aren’t there to support the half-assed, unpaid circulation of arbitary links; they are in business to ensure that its membership finds what they are looking for with as little clutter as possible.

This also has the unfortunate effect for information seekers of creating a harder to break filter bubble, increasing the chances that people find links and comments in their feed that they agree with, because they are being shared by friends, while decreasing the potential for perspectives and opinions that challenge their world view.

Vivian Schiller was far too polite to do anything more than hint at the missed opportunities for local media, particularly at an event for media managers hosted by the Unit Trust.

After pointing out many of the same things in this space over the last few years, I am possessed of no such inclination for good grace.

That didn’t mean I wasn’t surprised when one executive sought answers as to why Facebook doesn’t respond to questions about monetizing content shared in that space (the social media giant doesn’t care very much about any media house) and another declared that unlike their newspaper it was impossible for advertisers on Facebook to get details about their ad spend (digital media offers unparalleled insights into exactly how effective promotions and advertisements are).

These are troubled times for traditional media, and Vivian Schiller was talking to a room already chilled by large staff separations at the Trinidad Express and the reality that other adjustments would occur across local media.

Under the rubric “waking up to digital reality,” Schiller offered the following to do list as a starting point for managing a transition or embrace of digital media opportunities.

Live where your audience lives.

Don’t just dump material into social media channels, participate in them so that you understand their nuances and immerse yourself in their possibilities.

“The platforms and devices that are probably going to disrupt your business will look like a toy,” she warned.

“Be ready to disrupt your own business so that someone else doesn’t do it for you.”

Integrate your newsroom.

Get the digital people together with the print and broadcast people. Let them inhabit the same space, let interests and approaches collide and coalesce and allow a unified approach to emerge.

Put audience engagement at the center.

This is probably the hardest thing for long serving media professionals to understand. For decades, the Public Affairs Editor has dealt with the letters to the editor and filtered them for publication.

Now there needs to be a senior audience engagement professional operating at a high level in the business, participating in the planning of the news menu and its distribution, engaging with the ebb and flow of a customer response over which the media outlet has no functional control.

Think about your brand experience off platform.

Who are you as a business? What makes you stand out? What do you stand for?

What tone or visuals are associated with your brand? Who are the people creating? Make the personality of the business and the personalities that shape it pop out.

Experiment with different kinds of storytelling.

Give people the license to experiment and to fail. Learn from the failures without assigning blame. Think about the story and what’s the best way to deliver it.

Diversify revenue streams.

Where is the money to fund all these changes in a quicksand environment going to come from? There’s no single answer and no magic bullet. Consider branded content newsrooms, creating material for brands that’s clearly separated from the journalism product.

Do what you do best and link to the rest.

Don’t try to do everything. Identify the thing you do and link to other content that’s authoritative on the subject, even if it comes from your competition.

Stay true to your mission.

Schiller’s final statement to the media group was chilling, if you think things are difficult now.

“The pace of change will never be this slow again,” her final slide read.

About Mark Lyndersay

Mark Lyndersay is a writer and photographer based in Trinidad and Tobago. He writes editorial leaders for Guardian Media Limited, for whom he has written more than 1,300 since 2001, feature writing and reviews and his column, BitDepth, which has examined personal technology issues continuously over the last 20 years. As a photographer, he divides his time between commercial assignments and annual report photography and personal projects like Local Lives, which examines the backstory of life and culture in Trinidad and Tobago.

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